Do animals have morals?

Do animals have morals? We often think of them as just instinct-driven simple creatures. Wired for getting food, reproducing and fighting over territory. If you are one of those people that think this way you may be surprised! Let’s have a look at this video:

You can say it was choreographed. Yes, that probably is the case. But nonetheless it brings up a point worth debating on. The dog in the video seems quite intelligent. He finds a solution to remove the food from the trap. We know that dogs can be smart and that they learn a lot. But is he moral? As we know from the sad examples of sociopaths and psychopaths, high IQ doesn’t necessarily equal high ethical standards.

Later in the video the dog helps a mother boar and shares his own food with her wounded baby. How generous! But is that based on true facts or is this just our own wishful thinking?

Recently researchers have made considerable progress on this subject. One cognitive ethologist – Marc Bekoff, a pioneer in the field of animal morality, argues in his work that animals do have a moral compass. In his book “Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals” he presents many examples of animals demonstrating compassionate and empathetic behaviors.

In one experiment, hungry rhesus monkeys refused to push a lever for food when they saw that doing so caused another monkey to be electrically shocked. In another study, a female gorilla rescued an unconscious 3-year-old human boy who had fallen into her enclosure at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, protecting the child from other gorillas. Bekoff also brings up the case of a wild female elephant who cared for a younger female after it was injured by a rambunctious teenage male. Aren’t these all clear signs of morality?

Not everyone agrees with that view, however. Hal Herzog, psychologist at Western Carolina University, says that male bluebirds that catch their female partners stepping out may beat the female. But he explicates it with different argumentation. Animal emotions may be rooted in instinct and hard-wiring, rather than conscious choice, says Herzog. So in this case there would be no active choice and animals wouldn’t be reasoning about morality. Rather, they would be doing things that serve them as a species.

The debate in the scientific community is still ongoing, but with a growing emphasis on animals having a sense of morality. If that turned out to be true, then this should make us more humble – as we would not be the only moral ones on this planet. Also, I would argue that this should make us more compassionate towards non-human beings. As another researcher in this area – Mark Rowlands, said: “If one accepts that animals have moral compasses, we have the responsibility to treat them with respect”.

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